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The Short on “Short”: An Interview with Alan Ziegler

By Alisha Kaplan

Alan Ziegler—beloved Columbia University professor, master teacher of teaching, writer in his own right, and champion of short prose—is also the editor of Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms. The anthology was three years in the making, though Ziegler explains that, “I actually started work on the book—without knowing it—the first time I photocopied pieces for my Short Prose Forms class in 1989.” His dedication is manifest in the result. The book, which packs in a sweeping, cherry-picked selection of over 200 writers from the 16th century to the 21st, was published this spring by Persea Books. 

The following interview was conducted by email during the first week of May. 

Alisha Kaplan: Short includes pieces from all over the world: France, England, Poland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, and more. How did you decide which countries to choose from? Were there any places you had to leave out that you wish you could have included?

Alan Ziegler: Decisions were made under the oppressive influence of space constraints. The first, and most painful, decision was to confine the book to Western Literature—no China, Japan, Middle East, etc. I would have loved to include more countries from Central and South America. Ultimately, the book is about form and genre, and should not be approached as a geographical survey or an attempt to establish a canon for short prose.

AK: The anthology is arranged in chronological order, and the first pieces are mostly by Western European writers (e.g. from France, Italy, Germany, England). Did short prose forms flourish first in this part of the world? If so, why do you think this was the case?

AZ: Any explanation would be an oversimplification, but the rigidity of the rules for versification prevalent in nineteenth-century France is certainly a main reason prose poems first flourished there, spurred in part by the short prose of Edgar Allan Poe, who was enormously influential to Baudelaire and Mallarmé. In Austria, Peter Altenberg was influenced by Baudelaire, as was Juan Ramón Jiménez in Spain; Altenberg influenced Kafka—and so forth. I guess the point is: wherever it goes it spreads!

AK: Sometimes you have different translators for multiple pieces by the same author. For instance, three of Baudelaire’s prose poems are translations by Keith Waldrop, and the last, “Get Drunk,” is a translation by David Lehman. How did you choose which translations to include for which pieces?

AZ: David Lehman’s “Get Drunk” is a brand-new translation, and I saw this as an opportunity to get it out there (and hope it would start the clamoring for David to translate all of Paris Spleen). In other cases, availability of a particular piece was a factor, or there was something about a specific translation that induced me to choose it. One of the reasons I selected Waldrop is that he translates the last phrase of Baudelaire’s “Dog and Flask”— des ordures soigneusement choisies—as “carefully selected crap,” which I preferred to “carefully raked-up mire,” “dung, chosen with care,” “carefully chosen sweepings,” “carefully selected scraps of nastiness,” “carefully selected garbage,” and “meticulously selected garbage.”

AK: Many of the pieces in this anthology comprise the syllabus in your class “Short Prose Forms,” which you’ve been teaching at Columbia University for twenty-five years. Over that time, have you seen a change in how students respond to the material?

AZ: From the very start, students were open to and enthusiastic about the form, and happy to be in a class that didn’t limit their writing to poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. The prose poet was the odd duck in the poetry workshop; in a fiction workshop, the short short story writer sometimes heard, “I love it but it’s not a story”; the writer of brief essays in a nonfiction class wasn’t able to decide, midstream, to fictionalize. I think sometimes students took Short Prose Forms for what it was not, without necessarily knowing what it was. Now, more students know what to expect, and many are already familiar with contemporary writers working in the form. Early on, I got some students who thought shorter would be easier; they quickly learned that the degree of difficulty is often inversely proportional to length. Today’s students tend to know how hard it is.

AK: You have likened the short prose piece to a joke. Could you explain how so? And how does humor cross language and cultural barriers in these short works?

AZ: Charles Simic said, “My aspiration is to create a kind of nongenre made up of fiction, autobiography, the essay, poetry, and of course, the joke!” Comedians tend to pay close attention to structure and word choice; rewrite continuously until every word is in the optimal location; and subvert audience expectations. Many contemporary comedians (Robert Klein, Louis C.K.) are known for their “observational humor”—the audience laughs in part due to recognition of common experience—and their best work could hold up as flash fiction. Translating humor is an enormously difficult task, especially when it comes to puns and wordplay; but human foibles and pratfalls cross language barriers. Look at W.S. Merwin’s translation of an eighteenth-century piece by Chamfort: During a siege a water carrier cried through the town, “Water! six sous a bucket.” A cannonball carried away one of his two buckets. Unperturbed, and without losing the moment, he cried, “Water! Twelve sous a bucket.”

AK: Now to the nitty-gritty: what was the process like of getting permissions for so many works from all over the world and all different decades?

AZ: If I falter in answering this question, it is because it has induced PTSD (Permissions Tribulations Stress Disorder). I was fortunate to have the services of Fred Courtright (The Permissions Company), who labored for well over a year. Many pieces required him to obtain multiple permissions (print and electronic in both US and the UK, plus in many cases underlying rights for the originals of translated pieces). Occasionally, publishers would not meet our “favored nations” maximum fee, and I appealed directly to the authors to intervene, which they invariably did graciously. We only lost a few (from deceased authors) because of money, but we did lose one crucial writer because his agent refused to grant electronic rights. The permissions wheels grind very slowly at some houses, causing months of uncertainty. Fred was doing the heavy lifting, but I was in a constant state of fretfulness.

AK: Can you recommend any short prose writers yet to be translated into English who we should look out for?

AZ: Can I recast the question as “very recently translated into English”? If so, I’d like to mention Osama Alomar, a Syrian expatriate who writes very short stories (known as al-qisa al-qasira jiddan in Arabic) and is currently driving a taxi in Chicago.

Published May 9, 2014   Copyright 2014 Alisha Kaplan

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